Workplace suicides took a sharp upward turn in 2008, with workers in the protective services, such as police officers and firefighters, at greatest risk, a new study finds. Researchers say the findings point to the workplace as a prime location for reaching those at risk with potentially life-saving information and help.
According to the study, which was published this month in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 1,719 people died by suicide in U.S. workplaces between 2003 and 2010, with an overall rate of 1.5 per 1 million workers. Workplace suicide rates had been on the decrease, but increased sharply in 2008 — between 2003 and 2007, such suicides ranged between 210 and 182 and then jumped to 247 in 2008. Comparatively, non-workplace suicides, which are a leading cause of injury and mortality in the U.S., continued a more gradual increase over the study period. The study also found that workplace suicides were 15 times higher for men than for women and about four times higher for workers ages 65 to 74 than for workers ages 16 to 24.
“Occupation can largely define a person’s identity, and psychological risk factors for suicide, such as depression and stress, can be affected by the workplace,” said lead study author Hope Tiesman, an epidemiologist with the Division of Safety Research at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, in a news release. “A more comprehensive view of work life, public health, and work safety could enable a better understanding of suicide risk factors and how to address them. Suicide is a multifactorial outcome and therefore multiple opportunities to intervene in an individual’s life — including the workplace — should be considered.”
To conduct the study, NIOSH researchers analyzed data from the Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries database and the Web-Based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System.
The highest workplace suicide rate was found among those in the protective services, at 5.3 per 1 million workers, followed by workers in farming, fishing and forestry occupations, at 5.1 workplace suicides per 1 million workers. Workers in installation, maintenance and repair occupations experienced a workplace suicide rate of 3.3 per 1 million. Within the installation, maintenance and repair category, researchers uncovered a somewhat new and startling finding: workers in automotive maintenance and repair occupations had a workplace suicide rate of 7.1 per 1 million. Suicides among members of the armed forces were not included, as such statistics are not included in the databases used in this study.
Eighty-nine percent of workplace suicides occurred among white workers; however, people of unknown or “other” races experienced the highest workplace suicide rate at 2.1 per 1 million. Overall, racial minorities were at greater risk for workplace suicides compared to non-workplace suicides, the study found. Among all occupation groups, firearms were used in 48 percent of workplace suicides, with firearms involved in the great majority of workplace suicides within the protective services industry. Study authors Tiesman, Srinivas Konda, Dan Hartley, Cammie Chaumont Menendez, Marilyn Ridenour and Scott Hendricks write:
Contributing factors for the high suicide rate among protective service occupations include increased access to lethal means, shiftwork, and high-stress work experiences. Details concerning firearm ownership (service issued or privately owned) are not available in the (Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries), but prior research has shown that access to lethal means and socialization of officers to firearms may increase their suicide risk. …Another risk factor for suicide among protective service workers is the high-stress situations that are often part of their normal duties. Exposure to high-stress events can lead to negative mental health outcomes such as post-traumatic stress disorder, generalized anxiety disorders, and depression. Many protective service workers do not seek counseling for these issues because of the fear of being stigmatized.
Access to mental health care services was another contributor to workplace suicide risk cited in the study. For example, farmers and those working in the agricultural industry often reside in rural communities, many of which are home to health and mental health provider shortages. Within the installation, maintenance and repair industry, which has a comparatively high workplace suicide rate, the study authors cited previous research that has linked increased suicide risk among automotive workers to solvent exposure. Regular and long-term exposure to solvents can have serious neurological effects, such as memory impairment, irritability, depression, emotional instability and brain damage. However, the study noted that it’s not clear why workers in other occupations with frequent solvent exposure don’t experience similarly high suicide risks.
The study concluded that workplace-based suicide education and intervention programs could provide life-saving assistance: “This upward trend of suicides in the workplace underscores the need for additional research to understand occupation-specific risk factors and develop evidence-based programs that can be implemented in the workplace,” Tiesman said.
To read the full study, visit the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.